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Non-intended Product Use for New Product Development

By Claudia Hentschel

Every company prides itself on giving customers products that serve a defined purpose and fulfill a known need. Tennis balls for playing tennis. Toothpaste for cleaning teeth. Beverages for quenching thirst. Aspirin for headaches.

After all, making a product fulfill intended purposes and functions will guarantee success – or so one would think. But consumers do not always use the product for the purpose for which it was intended. What if a customer uses the product in unexpected ways and for unexpected purposes? Torn tennis balls on a trailer coupling for protection. Toothpaste to cure CD scratches. A beverage to clean lime scale.

Aspirin for blood dilution.

Generally speaking, developing companies have a limited view of and sometimes late access to information explaining how products are to be used. There are two questions to consider:

  1. Is non-intended product use actively considered in industrial product development?
  2. Are consumers aware of using their products in ways other than originally intended?

Non-intended Product Use

Non-intended product use is not often considered when working with new product development. As always, there are exceptions to the rule – product development company IDEO at times looks at products from another application field to deliver a solution to a given design problem almost automatically. Working with known rule breakers is another way the company works on new product concepts.
Drawing a Distinction to Recycling

When using products in a different than proscribed manner, some parallels to recycling may be seen. An article in the Journal of Engineering Design defined recycling as reuse, further use or reutilization of products or parts of products in cycles, with two cycles – product and material recycling. The latter refers to destroying the product’s original shape and is not relevant for non-intended product use. Product recycling, however, refers to maintaining the product’s original shape and feeding it back into a new usage cycle. As the product provides the same as the intended function in reuse, it is excluded here, too, as only different as the intended functions are of interest. Similarity to recycling is only to be found in further use, as the consumer finds a different function that was not necessarily intended in the design phase.

The differences from recycling are:

  • The level of the new product application and
  • The finality of the decision to use a product in a different function.

In further use the product is used in a function that is usually to be considered of lower level than the original product function. An additional function can sometimes occur here, sometimes without interfering with the intended function. In most cases, however, the decision to recycle a product by means of further use is irreversible, as seen in the tennis ball example mentioned above. But there are also instances in which the consumer can switch between the originally intended and the different function – as a product now has additional functionality.

Consumer Opinions

A January 2007 survey of 97 persons asked about their opinions on using products in ways other than the intended purpose shared the following: 97 percent said that if he/she has used a product in a way other than the given purpose! Those surveyed provided about 300 examples, showing that unorthodox product use obviously plays a role. Four examples were named repeatedly:

  1. A lighter used as a bottle cap opener
  2. Pliers used as a hammer
  3. Sodato clean lime scale off of sinks and toilets
  4. Condoms to protect weapons from desert sand

On the other hand, the same consumers admitted that they rarely deviate from given functions and purposes. Only 7 percent stated that they deviate from given functions often; this is a small number in comparison to the large number of non-intended use examples.

When asked about the awareness of the persons non-intended product use, the results were evenly balanced: 50 percent were aware of their product purpose diversion while the other 50 percent do this unconsciously and only later realize the deviation.

In 1999, CBS Nightline challenged product development company IDEO to redesign the ordinary shopping cart in just five days. The design team took note of unsafe and inefficient – but unconscious – usage in grocery stores. Not only were baby seats transported in the carts, but they were also left in the main aisles so that customers could rush quickly to sections of the store, fetch items and then find the cart that they had left centrally parked. The redesigned cart had two child seats with some type of play surface and small removable baskets that could be taken to the middle of aisles and later replaced in the cart.

TRIZ for Non-intended Product Use

Using the systematic approach to innovation known as TRIZ (Theory of Innovative Problem Solving) can assist with the discovery and utilization of non-intended product use:

  • One aspect of TRIZ uses contradictions to develop innovative solutions; the consumer finds himself in contradictory situations and/or having to fulfill contradictory tasks. By using the TRIZ systematic approach to innovation, contradictions can lead to the development of ideality and more useful product functions.
  • TRIZ focuses on functions and effects, e.g., physical, chemical, thermo-mechanical or geometrical. The user of the method will be led along new paths outside his original expertise and is therefore able to restructure a product’s purposes.
  • The method’s analogy-based thinking resembles benchmarking, where knowledge from analog problem solutions is transferred to other fields. The conflict and contradiction thinking is also reflected, as by the customer, who often unconsciously has contradictory tasks to fulfill.
  • Transformations into new application fields reveal new ways of product evolution and breakthrough innovations.


Unorthodox use has been underestimated so far, if not completely neglected. Developing companies need to use tools such as TRIZ to imagine customer-desired product outcomes instead of customer-input-driven problem solutions to formerly expressed needs.

Adapted from a presentation at ETRIA TRIZ Futures 2007.

About the Author:

Claudia Hentschel studied industrial engineering, focusing mechanical engineering and production technology, at TU Berlin and at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Her professional background features five years of research, teaching and industry consulting at the Department of Assembly Technology of the TU Berlin/Fraunhofer Gesellschaft within the Production Technology Center Berlin. In 1996, Dr. Hentschel changed to Siemens AG Information and Communication Mobile (ICM), working as a product manager in projects aimed at the turn-key installation of mobile communication networks and managing the supply of OEM products for the radio subsystem of mobile GSM networks. Since 2000 she has been a professor at the University of Applied Sciences FHTW Berlin, lecturing on innovation, technology management and project management. Contact Claudia Hentschel at c.hentschel (at)